The World

How Putin Plunged Russia Toward Totalitarianism

While invading Ukraine, the dictator has imposed a new era of Soviet-style oppression at home. He’s been building to this moment for a decade.

Vladimir Putin in a suit on a bold red background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

During a documentary interview in 1996, back when he was a little-known political functionary, Vladimir Putin offered an eerie warning about Russia’s future.

“However sad and however frightening it may sound, I think that in our country a return to a certain period of totalitarian rule is possible,” he said. “The danger,” he added, “is not to be found in the organs that provide order, the police or even the army. It is a danger at our summit, in the mentality of our people, our nation.”

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Well over a decade later, while speaking as president during a nationally televised Q&A in 2012, Putin once again mused about the possibility of totalitarian rule. This time, though, his remarks sounded distinctly more like a threat—or a promise. “If I believed that a totalitarian and authoritarian system is the most preferable for us, I would simply change the constitution,” he said.

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For Western ears, though not for Russian ones, totalitarianism is an old-fashioned word.

Used to describe a government that asserts complete control of its people—and limits its access to the outside world—the term was famously adopted by Winston Churchill and George Orwell to describe Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR and immortalized in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 era-defining work The Origins of Totalitarianism. Among political scientists, the phrase has fallen out of fashion since the 1980s, as decades of scholarship revealed Stalinism to have been a more chaotic, less top-down affair than the robotized party rule of Orwell’s nightmares.

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Yet what’s happening in Russia now amid its invasion of Ukraine is exactly the sort of leap toward totalitarian rule that Putin foreshadowed in 1996. In a matter of weeks, his government has imposed a severity of repression and an information blackout comparable to the USSR’s before Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization. Opposition leaders have been vocal on this point. As the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky put it: “Russia today has moved from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian one.”

Russia has never in its history been a full liberal democracy (no election in Russia in the 1990s was ever truly free and fair). But for most of Putin’s reign, it never quite descended into what Western academics would call “full authoritarianism” either. The Kremlin crushed independent TV and pushed out all meaningful political challengers by the mid-2000s. But compared with China, for instance, it allowed a far higher degree of free speech online, in certain newspapers, and even in a few minor elected positions. Russia also permitted access to Western media. Political scientists would call the system a “hybrid regime,” where elements and zones of freedom are allowed to exist as long as they do not challenge the repressive mainframe.

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Since Putin declared his “special military operation” at 5:45 a.m. two weeks ago, his government has sought to stifle dissent with a broad crackdown on the remnants of Russia’s free press as well as social networks and public protesters. The Kremlin forced off air Echo of Moscow and Dozhd, the last independent, liberal radio and TV stations. It blocked the magazine New Times for reporting on military casualties in Ukraine. Most foreign news sources with large Russian coverage and readership are also now blocked, including BBC Russian, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle. Some publications have responded with self-censorship: Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper famous for its investigative reporting, chose to abandon its war reporting rather than risk retaliation.

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Meanwhile, Russian celebrities who have criticized the war have been rapidly punished, such as the country’s most famous talk show host Ivan Urgant, whose show has not aired since he did so. Journalists who have criticized the war, including Elena Chernenko of Kommersant, have been kicked out of the Foreign Ministry press pool for their views. Several others are now facing charges for covering anti-war protests in Russia.

More troublingly still, last week Russia’s parliament enacted a law punishing individuals with fines and potential jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news” about the military. (Even calling the assault on Ukraine a “war” is now considered legally risky.) The statute has forced Western media to largely pull out of the country: BBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN ceased broadcasting within Russia, while the New York Times pulled its reporters from Russia entirely. “Even in the depths of the Cold War, under the Soviet dictatorship, this never happened,” New York Times deputy managing editor Cliff Levy tweeted.

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A new clampdown on social media companies is also denying Russians access to information. The Kremlin has blocked Facebook and restricted Twitter, while slowing down multiple other websites to the point of unusability. People have been detained for as little as liking or sharing content criticizing the regime. Meanwhile, on the streets, Putin’s newly severe zero-tolerance approach to protests has seen more than 13,000 arrested for demonstrating against the war.

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While this level of repression is new and seemingly sudden, the seeds for it were planted over the course of a decade. In 2011 and 2012, Russia erupted in mass protests against Putin that grew out of the online and social spaces the Kremlin had left largely alone. After, Putin began to put the building blocks of a fully authoritarian regime into place.

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A key radicalization point was Putin’s first intervention in Ukraine in 2014, when the government introduced a criminal penalty for individuals who showed up to multiple “unsanctioned” public protests, and blocked websites that reported on, among other things, the mobile crematoriums disposing of Russian casualties from the Donbas region. Over the next few years, legislation and technical capacity were systematically put in place to control the internet.

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A good measure of Putin’s descent toward full authoritarianism is to follow the career of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In 2013, Navalny was allowed to run for Moscow mayor, in a contest he could never win. In 2014, his website was blocked and he was put under house arrest. In 2018, he was blocked from running for president. In 2020, the Kremlin tried to assassinate him, and in 2021, he was jailed, his organization banned, driven out of the country, and his associates imprisoned.

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Now in hindsight, given that the first troop buildups began on the borders of Ukraine in the spring of 2020, the measures against Navalny and his organization look premeditated for the war, not vindictive. So too does Putin’s campaign to smother liberal-minded Russian media, using tools such as a law requiring outlets to register as foreign agents, which largely broke the independent press by the end of 2021. The Varieties of Democracy Institute’s data analysis of civil society repression already had Russia near pre-Gorbachev liberalization levels in 2020, and the country has now sunk below them.

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The Ukraine invasion has now triggered a final plunge away from freedom: Russians are no longer allowed to read basic information or discuss the war, as they were in past conflicts in Georgia or Chechnya. Political scientists attached to technical terms might say that it has crossed the line from a “hybrid regime” to become a “fully authoritarian” state like China or Iran. But as Putin’s old words and the language of today’s opposition show, ordinary Russians would simply recognize it as “totalitarianism.”

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To be sure, Russians have not yet lost all of their freedoms. Three members of its parliament recently spoke out against the war, for instance, in a demonstration of official resistance that wouldn’t likely happen in China. Younger Russians who were born after the fall of the Soviet Union may not all recognize where they are sliding. But older Russians, with stronger memories of history, do. “Another problem,” tweeted Kirill Martynov, the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, is that “everyone over the age of 35 has seen totalitarianism end, but almost no one now has the experience of living at the time when it begins.”

And indeed, this may just be the beginning. Now that Putin has sacrificed the economic stability that his popularity was initially based on, the most likely immediate future for him is that he will seek to rebuild his authority with the three key tools of the totalitarian playbook: mobilize his population through feverish propaganda, militarize society, and break resistance with severe new repression.

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We’ve already seen a hint of what this might look like, as the “Z” drawn on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine has proliferated across Russian nationalist media and is now being scrawled on cars and worn by athletes.

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In a development eerily reminiscent of Stalinism, Russian children and youth have been a particular focus of this propaganda: They have been filmed lauding the “chief commander in song,” saluting in “Z” logos in shopping malls and even forming a “Z” in the snow outside a hospice for those with childhood cancers. All this led the opposition activist Ilya Yashin to warn, “North Korea is closer than you think.” With the economy in collapse, Putin is sure to rely ever more heavily on this kind of politics to rally his nation. 

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For Russian liberals, this is all a disaster, and many are simply choosing to escape while they can. Tens of thousands have fled the country over the last week fearing repression, poverty, or the possibility that if they wait any longer, the borders may close. For Western policymakers it is a serious problem as well, since Russia is both more aggressive now and more inscrutable. With the free press smashed and chased out and social media limited, we will simply know a lot less about Russian politics and society than before. Without Western and Russian journalists engaging in meaningful reporting, we are back in the situation at the height of the Cold War when Western intelligence knew so little about internal Kremlin politics they were forced to guess political shifts in influence by how officials stood on Lenin’s Mausoleum during the annual Victory Day Parade and what medals they wore.

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This will require American and European leaders, and the press, to think differently about Russia, to treat it less like the Putin regime of old and more like the USSR. They will need to avoid overconfident predictions and not assume the Kremlin reads situations in the same way and understand that Russians themselves cannot be expected to pour into the streets in protest (this has apparently been lost on some Twitter commentators).

We should also borrow the best, most humane parts of America and Europe’s Cold War playbook. During the 20th century, the West operated—essentially—what amounted to an open border policy for dissidents fleeing the Eastern bloc. If the West is serious about undermining Putin’s Russia, it should consider dropping its visa regimes or COVID rules that do not recognize the Sputnik vaccine for international travel, and allow refugees from Russia and societies occupied or under attack by the Kremlin to claim asylum. Instead of walling off Russians behind visa and propaganda walls, the West should consider sponsoring Russian universities and media in exile to keep its free thinking alive.

Russia is crossing into a fragile, chaotic version of what could be a new mode of Putin-style totalitarianism. It is not yet there, but there is a high risk of things becoming darker ahead. The last word on this can ironically be ceded to the young Putin of 1996. “We all think in a way,” he said, “that if only there was a firm hand to provide order, we would all live better, more comfortably, and in safety.”

“In fact,” Putin continued, “this comfort would be short-lived because this firm hand will be tight and very quickly strangle us and … it will be instantly felt by every person, then in every family.”

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